YORK, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday declined to weigh in on a Portland referendum that would raise the minimum wage for Maine’s largest city to $18 an hour by 2025.
“I’ll leave that to the voters of Portland,” Mills said at an event rallying Democratic volunteers in York. “Certainly, the federal minimum wage ought to be increased. But I leave the local issue to the local voters.”
The governor’s remarks highlight her willingness to buck some in the progressive faction of her party and the lack of institutional support for the questions even after national figures like former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and actress Jane Fonda have supported it.
It is one of the most prominent questions on a sweeping, 13-referendum slate facing Portland voters in Tuesday’s election. Under the proposal, a local minimum wage already set to reach $15 would go to $18 in three years and a tipped minimum wage of $6.50 would be phased out. Other questions included a stronger mayoral position and new limits on short-term rentals.
They are the subject of a fierce campaign led by the Democratic Socialists of America’s local chapter and opposed by business interests. People on both sides said they were not upset by Mills’ unwillingness to take a side on the matter.
The minimum wage question is a complicated matter, said Matt Marks, a spokesperson for the Enough Is Enough campaign against the Portland questions. He understood why Mills didn’t want to get involved in a ballot question during her campaign against former Gov. Paul LePage and independent longshot Sam Hunkler.
“It’s definitely a local issue here,” he said.
Also unfazed was Wes Pelletier, the chair of the referendum campaign, noting the governor’s past support for raising the state’s minimum wage.
“I respect that she’s leaving it to the voters of Portland,” said Pelletier.
Mills said she was not surprised that Clinton had gotten involved in the campaign through a video released by the nonprofit One Fair Wage, but she did not elaborate more. Pelletier said raising the minimum wage generally had wide support across the Democratic Party, making the involvement of figures like Clinton unsurprising.
Asked about Mills’ comments, LePage strategist Brent Littlefield said the governor was attempting to distance herself from policies pushed by backers of the questions, citing her policy of opening state aid to more asylum seekers. He referred to former Mayor Ethan Strimling, a progressive leader who writes a column for the Bangor Daily News and praised that action.
Mills’ office had not responded to a request for comment after Portland Community Chamber of Commerce head Brit Vitalius endorsed the “Enough Is Enough” campaign at the beginning of a debate it hosted between Mills and LePage in Portland last month.
Portland is a Democratic stronghold that Mills won by 62 percentage points in 2018, with 8 percent of her voters coming from the city alone. She figures to win Maine’s liberal 1st District easily, while LePage has spent time campaigning in the city’s suburbs but figures to do best in the more rural and conservative 2nd District.